Discipleship poor fit for UMC

In conversation with Dan Dick over his latest blog post, I asked whether bishops would support pastors who get serious about discipleship and chase off nominal members as a result. Here is part of his reply:

When I did the Vital Signs study ten-plus years ago, the majority of pastors who were serious about discipleship were viewed as problematic by their cabinets. In one setting, a woman pastor was told by her DS, “you’re making it impossible to appoint anyone here to follow you, and most other churches don’t want you as their pastor.” This in response to her successful efforts to equip laity for preaching, care-giving/healing ministries, and Biblical scholarship. Pastors (and laity) who actively promote and pursue discipleship simply don’t “fit” in The United Methodist system. So, do we change the system or settle for more of what we already have? Bishops? Any opinions?

No one ever accused Dan of being Little Mary Sunshine.

On the blog post, Katie Z writes about her efforts over four years to slowly lead and nurture the congregation she serves toward discipleship. Her comment underscores the slow and patient work that pastors like her do in thousands of unheralded corners of the connection.

In my more zealous moments, I identify with Dan’s impatience. It reminds me of John Wesley’s zeal for real Christianity.

In my work with an actual congregation, I am likely to fall back more on Katie’s hope and patience, counting of God to work on and in people. I do not want to hurt them, and I do not want them to throw rocks at me. (I am, you see, basically a coward.)

As a United Methodist, I hope Dan is wrong about our system. Or I hope it can change.

20 thoughts on “Discipleship poor fit for UMC

  1. @Ron I have to agree with you that systems, of any form, can provide serious challenges. The allocation of power in fallen, human hands which are then given authority to decide not only in what manner you will minister (senior pastor? associate? campus ministry?) but also when and where, and even the. are responsible for gauging your effectiveness in ministry is… difficult, and daunting. But despite its chalenges, I also think they provide benefits as well. I very much believe that the Biblical model for discernment is very often a corporate one. Creeds and traditions are also affirmed when they continue to glorify God. Also, I’m not entirely sure I share the same view on the untenable conflict you mention…

    1) Congregations. The conflict here is typically that which is common to human relationships, there just happen to be a lot more of them. I actually find that itinerancy helps with this to a degree, since I don’t have to worry about the church firing me. Even without that, the balance of relationships with people and relationship with God is common to any form of ministry in any setting.

    2) Clerical superiors. A valid point. I have seen or heard stories of some pretty horrid DS’s. My experience hasn’t shared that, however. My experiences have always been of a very supportive DS, even in difficult situations with the local body.

    3) Real estate. The biggest problem I have experienced here is that. the building can easily become the object of devotion, as a relic embodying memories. This is more difficult he older the church is, and my challenge has always been to teach about how the buildings are tools we utilize for the kingdom. When the property is understood as a tool, it alleviates a lot of that pressure to serve the property rather than God. It doesn’t always alleviate it in the minds of my congregants, but it certainly helps me to keep perspective.

    4) God. Obviously, this is not a conflict. It does, however, sometimes become an excuse, I can get myself into a rut where I decide I know what God wants, and refuse to “yield” to the will of the body. In reality, however, that is not the will of God… that is hubris. If God can speak to me, he can speak to The rest of His children. To then shut out their counsel because I know best is arrogant. This awareness helps me to remember that, rather than being a conflict, #1 and #2 can actually be a system of checks and balances in the discernment process.

  2. T.E., from what I have seen, and what I read in scripture, I must go to the mat on the issue of structure-system-kosmos. The intent is not to be argumentative. (Okay, John, you can stop laughing.) 😉

    There are three major examples of NT decision-making and conflict-resolution: the replacement of Judas by a toss of the dice (Acts 1), the Jerusalem conference, which resulted in compromise(Acts 21), and the dissolution of the Great Missionary Team because of irreconcilable differences (Acts 15). To extrapolate the elaborate bureaucracies of Christendom’s major bodies (UMC, Roman Catholic Church, etc) from these examples is problematical.

    The grand-daddy of the creeds, the Nicene Creed, was a pressure-cooker political statement demanded by Constantine to impose a worldly system on the Church, a typical Roman order on the Body of Christ. The Emperor laid down the law: “Until you’ve resolved these arguments, nobody leaves the room.” This imposed the expectation of universal doctrinal agreement, procedure, and enforcement based on a hierarchical model, not Jesus’ suffering servant example. It did not glorify God at the time, and does not glorify God now.

    Acceptance of the creeds and doctrines of the churches guarantees nothing, except the fact that someone “says” they accept the creeds and doctrines. They do not guarantee new life in Christ, growing sanctification, nothing. And if you get caught up in a revival of any kind (Montanists, Cathari, Bogomils, Wesleyan, Great Awakening, Jesus Movement, Charismatic, ad infinitum), you will definitely be accused of enthusiasm, schism, excess, and heresy. Fear of those labels has prevented countless earnest men and women from following the Spirit’s leading.

    My list of things which wrench at “clergy” (congregations, clerical superiors, real estate and office space, and God) is actually an expansion of what Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Ordained clergy are stuck with four, even five, such masters, if you expand the list to include Jesus’ original: money.

    And I don’t have to tell you about the seasons of a pastor’s life when she dreads the act of preaching, hates the congregation and key people in it, and repents of the decision to ever seek ordination. This is PRECISELY [not yelled, think of it as b.f. ital.] the hate and despising that Jesus talked about. It- is- exactly- the same. Jesus warned us, but naturally it doesn’t apply to us, right?

    As I see it, there are unremediable, unfixable problems with real estate, committees, and reports (institutional maintenance). First, they suck the life from earnest young men and women–chews them up and spits them out. Second, it totally misleads the People of God into thinking that brick and mortar, wood and stucco, are the church, and not They Themselves. It’s way easier to clean up the building and make it pretty than to allow God to cleanse us and clothe us in white. We will always choose the easier stuff first. Third, see: http://biblethumpingliberal.com/2011/08/11/the-hermit-crab-2/

    T.E., you mentioned the building as a relic, an object of devotion. Yes, this is a form of worship and misplaced faith. The problem is multiplied when the bishops look at congregations as “underperforming assets” that need to be wisely handled (sold off) as “good stewards.” (OMG, how we cloak our deeds in pious language.)

    The fact that property value figures into the UMC’s accountants and their decisions on which “churches” to close is another form of devotion and worship, one that somehow seems more culpable, and calculated, than the wistful nostalgia of a dwindling clutch of 80- and 90-year-olds.

    The plan of UMC bishops and accountants for the disposal of church assets legally under their control (“held in trust”) is directly equivalent to devouring widow’s estates (Matt. 23:14; Luke 20:47).

    It is all these things that are in conflict with God. We hide the conflict from ourselves by saying that it is “God” who “called” us to this web of conflicting loyalties called “ordained ministry,” that conforming to the Book of Discipline flows naturally out of “vows” we made when we were too young and naive (too stupid?) to know better.

    This is my perspective, and I’m confident that none of you will be led astray by my intemperate rhetoric. When you wonder why the “United Methodist Church” has been in decline since before its inception in 1968, these are some possible reason. It is a near perfect illustration of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

  3. Like Dan, I am not sanguine that legislation to deal with “ineffective” pastors will be implemented in a just, or even a helpful way. Two examples from history. In the 1950s there were a group of about a dozen white pastors in a certain annual conference in the deep South who earned a reputation as “agitators” for disturbing “racial harmony” by advocating an end to segregation. Since they were full elders, the bishop couldn’t “fire” them, and instead chose to facilitate their transfers to California, where a number of them provided outstanding leadership for many years. A second, related reminiscense: During the 1960s I travelled throughout the U.S. for the then Board of Missions. I knew most of the ministers across the country who first integrated a local church in their conference. Most of them were deemed “unappointable” because they were too “controversial.” Many of them were forced to leave the ministry. Almost all of them at least had to change conferences.
    In my view, the current legislation already provides sufficient authority to deal with ineffective pastors, and has the advantage of providing certain legal safeguards for “due process.” The problem is not lack of legislation but lack of administrative will. New legislation is unlikely to produce administrative guts but will only serve to undermine ministrial morale for everybody. I once saw a cartoon posted near the copymachine in a business office. The sign said (facetiously), “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”
    My question is: How do we “fire” ineffective congregations?

  4. Like all good Methodists, I think this calls for a Committee, Jim. Actually, a task force that has training in conflct resolution and other helpful skills. We can leave the ultimate decisions to the DS and/or Cabinet.

    Instead of a decision made by consulting both sides, as Cabinets do now, perhaps an assessment team could help to determine if the pastor is divisive and ineffective or if the congregation is entrenched and uncooperative.

    This team could also intervene in volatile situations of accusations of wrongdoing to insure the clergy accountability and appropriate protections (think 1960’s agitators).

    This would obviously be temporary service, with little authority beyond investigative powers, and ultimately subject to the episcopacy and the Cabinet thereof.

    Before you pick it apart, how could this be refined and perfected to accomplish the stated goal of determining when the church is the problem and when the pastor’s “leadership” has been injurious?

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